Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Jerry Springer: The Opera

You'd think that a cutting-edge opera about American popular culture would have taken less than five years to make it across the pond, but never underestimate the temerity of the American theatre producer, who will use the word "controversial" to describe something that is more ho-hum than, well, a Jerry Springer show segment. For exactly the same reason that it was not created on these shores (we can only make fun of other people, not ourselves), it will never play for more than a couple of nights in a (how dare you make fun of us?) concert version in a city less than 100 miles from an ocean. So: Yay New York.

As someone who has only seen Jerry Springer via clips and videos of chair-throwing brawls (and, yeah, okay, the Austin Powers parody), I laughed so hard during Act One that I gave myself a headache. I don't know about you, but hearing nasty-ass swear words sung like a Bach cantata (would that make it a c*ntata?) on the same stage where Toscanini, Bernstein and Von Karajan conducted the classics? That never gets old. It's like watching the David Mamet version of Rabbit of Seville. I had a slight problem with the three-segment structure (interrupted by hilarious commercials) -- I thought segment two was funnier and more over-the-top than segment three. Until, that is, the KKK danced on stage for their Jerry Springer moment. Which is pretty much the high point of the first half. But then it's easy to laugh at twenty hoofers doing coffee-grinders in sheets and hoods. Easy targets, easy laughs. Controversial? Not really; at least not in this city (yay us twice).

Which means, okay, what constitutes controversy here? Is it just the tinsel? The trimmings? Take away the choral profanities and the Conflict-Resolution-In-Hell between God, Jesus, Mary and Satan, and what do you have left? A first act that is perfectly-pitched satire, and a second act which attempts to (a) redeem a character we don't really care about, and (b) deliver a message that undercuts all the guilty pleasure you feel hearing Satan sing the longest FU coloratura in history.

Sidebar: I ghosted the book of a musical called Hamelin in the mid-80's, and for an act and four-fifths the nasty Mayor and his Wife were wonderfully hissable larger-than-life villains. Until they got to sing the "Where have our children gone?" ballad, after the Plaid Piper has stolen their daughter away. Every night we did it, you could feel the bottom drop out of the show at just that moment, as the audience said "You want us to care for them? Forget it!" and crossed their arms in front of their chests and turned to stone. Stone. It was like a free-fall ride at Six Flags.

There isn't that kind of drop-off here, but Act Two was definitely less sharp than Act One. (Heave a sigh for the lost art of writing the successful second act. It's like the Holy Grail -- there are so many maps with shortcuts to get there, but the true one is impossible to achieve without a daunting quest through despair, humility and sacrifice.) In short, the second act feels like it's controversial for the sake of controversy, instead of organic. But then how do you make satire organic? How do make people care about straw men set up for mockery? Glib answer: the same way you make satire sting -- by going for the laugh that dies in your throat.

Since we're talking about controversy: a word about blasphemy. No -- two -- two words about blasphemy. (1) In much the same way some people use Hitler as the epitome of human evil on earth, I always use Rudy Giuliani as my litmus test for blasphemy. I always ask myself questions like, "If His Rudeness was still Mayor of New York, what would he say about Jerry Springer: The Opera?" If the answer is, "He'd call for removing all city funding from Carnegie Hall for presenting it," then I get out my check book and ask the Carnegie Hall people who I make the donation out to. Bottom line: if Rudy's in favor of banning it, I'm in favor of supporting it. And (2) I believe in a God who is secure enough in Her own divinity to laugh at Herself. I mean, really -- if you don't think God has a sense of humor, then you've never ridden on the L Train.

So yes, even with the usual second-act problems, it was a great show. And it was actually a reunion of sorts, at least for me. Because in front of Carnegie Hall were (I remember you!) the same protesters who were in front of the Ziegfeld 20 years ago protesting Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ! With the same banners and everything! And their grown-up kids! I don't know about you, but I can't wait to see them when The Life Of Brian opens at the Shubert.

Hey guys--where you been?

No -- wait -- three -- three words about blasphemy. I would have a lot more sympathy for those who protest when an object of worship is treated like a human being if these same people were protesting whenever human beings act like or are are treated like animals. Doing that makes you a true Christian. Not doing it makes you a Pharisee.

And it's all your fault, Jerry!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Nicole Atkins, Bowery Ballroom 1/25/08

After a go-see-her blurb in the New York Times (but no review? WTF, guys), it was no surprise to me see the Bowery Ballroom totally packed for this sold-out 11 PM Place To Be Seen Show*. But it sure seemed like a surprise to the star performer. "There's a question we've been asking ourselves all week," she said as she came out. "Who are you guys?" Nicole honey? We're you're new fans.

The reason I was there was because my friend Kathleen saw her open for Chris Isaak at the Beacon this summer and has been following her across small concert halls ever since. "Wait till you hear her," she said. "The CD doesn't do her justice." And it doesn't. Her voice is muted on the disc, but live? She has a voice like cream on a steak knife.

She did a song called "The Way It Is" that was just. Jaw-droppingly. Gorgeous. The CD version doesn't do it justice, but the video below from Letterman last October will give you an idea of what it sounded like Friday night:

Gives you shivers, doesn't it?

How was the show? I'm guessing a lot of people came to see a Local Girl Makes Good Show (Atkins hails from Asbury Park) and were more than pleasantly surprised to realize it was a Local Girl Kicks Ass Show. I know I was. It opened with the theme to Twin Peaks (I'm guessing Ms A is a Julee Cruise fan); was filled with a choice mix of upbeat and gloom 'n' doom, a Doors cover (don't quote me on this but I think it was The Crystal Ship), another cover of a Sixties song that I know I know but can't remember (don't you just hate that?); and ended with a rousing, let's-bring-on-everyone-from-the-opening-acts encore of Fleetwood Mac's The Chain (I'm guessing Ms. A is also a Stevie Nicks fan). And that's probably a good description of her voice: two parts Stevie Nicks, two parts Julee Cruise, and one part Jim Morrison, all mixed together with a shot of Wild Turkey for that raspy Janis Joplin edge.

Bottom line, I learned three things: (1) Trust Kathleen's taste in music -- it's like the Federal Reserve without the condescension. (2) Asbury Park is to music what Xavier's School is to mutants. And (3) When Nicole Atkins records a live album, she'll conquer the world the way she conquered the Bowery.

*Of course, it wouldn't be a Place To Be Seen Show without the bearded poser behind us telling his poor girlfriend how stupid her taste in music is. And talking during every song. Kathleen gave him the hairy eyeball, the guy beside her gave him the hairy eyeball, and he still kept talking. Kathleen asked him nicely to be quiet, and he still kept talking. Finally the guy next to her told him to STFU and the poser stopped talking only long enough to lean forward and yell "BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH!" into Kathleen's right ear. By the end of the evening, girlfriend had dumped poser boy and moved closer to the stage. Poser boy is probably online right now telling all his Facebook friends how Nicole Atkins shows are full of losers. And you know what? He can file me under L with the rest of them.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Weekend Update

Nicole Atkins at the Bowery. Whoever produced her CD should be tried for strangling this woman's wailing voice, because live? It goes right through you, bounces against the wall behind you, and then goes back through you in the other direction.

I'm with you, Jessica:

Charles Bock, whose first novel, “Beautiful Children,” comes out on Tuesday, used to be one of the horde of struggling, would-be writers who still flock to New York, even though novel-writing isn’t what it used to be. They hang on because every now and then a first-timer — a Colson Whitehead, a Zadie Smith, a Gary Shteyngart — hits the jackpot and makes the game seem worth staying in for just a little longer. You can spot them in coffee shops in Brooklyn and the West Village, clicking away on their laptops — when they’re not wasting time on Gawker, that is. You also see them at readings at Housing Works, KGB Bar and the Half King, dressed in black, leaning forward intently and sometimes venturing to ask a probing question. They idolize Lethem, Chabon, Eggers. They study The New Yorker religiously so that they can complain about how predictable the fiction is.

Wow, Charles McGrath. You just destroyed every single shred of interest I had in reading Beautiful Children in one paragraph.

The Simpsons Movie. On the big screen? Laugh out loud funny. On the small screen? Season 15. At best.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Downfall of the Cowboys

This week's moral dilemma

A friend of yours is performing. You know this because you check the website of the group to which this person belongs. Ordinarily you get an invite, or an e-mail saying “Hey, I’m doing this here then.” But you’ve received no e-mail for this show.

Do you go to the show, even though knowing about it is a minor form of stalking? Or do you say: “If my presence was requested, I would have gotten a request,” and make other plans?

Corollary question: how much of a friend is this friend? And what are you saying by going: "I support you," or "Here I am--look at me?"

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Stupid Rule of Threes

Weekend Update

Wells of the Antarctic. It is so frakking cold my fingers are leaving skin on the keyboard when I type.

Dave Doobinin at the Living Room, 01/17/08.

I don't think I've ever seen the place so packed, which is why I wasn't able to get close enough to take a decent picture. (Sorry, Dave.) I also don't think I've ever heard a performer other than Springsteen or Elvis Costello who had me singing along to his songs after hearing them only once before.

Doc Holliday's. Still one of the best dive bars in town.

Oh yeah. Ava's in town.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Online You-Know-What

Oh baby!

OH BABY!!!!!

Uh-oh baby -- I had an accident . . .

So wrong in so many ways:

Friday, January 18, 2008

the sun goes down on coney island

LTB Syndrome

What is LTB Syndrome?

It's when your Life is so active that you haven't been able to post anything To your Blog.

Life events: two concerts (three counting tonight's). Blog entries: the big egg of goose.

So I'll try to get them up over the weekend.

Meanwhile, at my day job, this week has been like Cloverfield with people in suits replacing the monster. No--wait--it's the sub-prime mortgage crisis that's the monster, and it's the people in suits that the mosnter is throwing off into the streets, where they attack everything that moves because they're afraid that their jobs are going the way of their 401-K's.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Thought for the Day

"We are not here to find ourselves; we are here to create ourselves."

-- George Bernard Shaw, date unknown
-- me, in an IM to Sarah Tiffany last night

Tift Merritt at Union Hall 1/11/08

How do you define star quality? It's different for every great performer, but as Friday night at Union Hall proved, when you're barely bigger than your guitar and you can still command the stage like a six-foot-tall Amazon, you can light up the sky like a comet.

You know how at a lot of trendy concerts, there's the group of people in the back of the hall who just stand there talking to each other because they came for the event rather than the music? Not this show, folks. I've seen less reverence at an Easter vigil. This audience wanted to be there, and I think even Ms. Merritt was surprised. Now and then this goofy grin crossed her face, like she was saying to herself, "Wow, this is as good as playing in North Carolina."

"I've never seen anyone attack an acoustic like that," my friend Mark said afterwards, and I had to agree. It's a wonder Tift's still got three joints on her right hand. And she doesn't just stand there and strum away either; she swoops back, raises the guitar like a rifle, and shoots the chords off a telephone pole half a mile away.

She's playing the Mercury Lounge on March 19th. As she said during the show, "Next time you see me I'll have a bunch of boys with me."

I'll be one of 'em.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Weekend Update

Tift Merritt at Union Hall. "This is probably going to be my last acoustic performance for a while," she said. Feel sorry you missed it, music fans.

The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House at Coney Island. "Go ahead. Shoot me in the french fries. Go ahead--do it. Shoot me. Shoot me in the french fries. I dare you. I dare you to shoot me in the french fries. Ah ha! You couldn't hit an elephant at that dist--"

Juno. Can I tell you how refreshing it is to see a Hollywood movie where the women are smarter and more together than the men? Y'know, like in real life? Okay, there are exceptions (y'know, like in real life), but the film nails the Peter Pan male and his inner 19-year-old (y'know, like in my life). Plus the high school slang is used the same way Shakespeare uses blank verse, as a high-intelligence contrast to the plain down-to-earth prose that signals direct emotional engagement without referencing Iggy and the Stooges, Diana Ross, or Thundercats. And I want that hamburger phone.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Thoughts from behind the pint glass

From various bar conversations in the last few days:

Just because there's a masculine and a feminine in a relationship, that doesn't mean there's a male and a female.

When you're seeing Mr. Right, Life will always send you Mr. Totally Bad For You as a test. But it will never send you Mr. Right as a test when you're with Mr. Totally Bad For You.

If you've been flying constantly for the last month, and you get an odd pain in your lower leg, see a doctor immediately. And whatever you do, don't get a massage.

There's nothing quite as terrifying as trying to describe a work of art when one if its co-creators is sitting next to you.

Texting and e-mailing are and always will be allergic to irony. If you're making a joke in a text or an e-mail, don't forget to use a smiley.

Attractions that never lose their spark and excitement are always about unfinished business.

Take naps whenever possible.

If you want your marriage and the last 20 years of your life to disappear, a deal with the devil works best.


Monday, January 7, 2008

What marriage?

From Diesel Sweeties:

Weekend Update

Notes for a diary entry. Ava, Ester, Daniel, Adam, John, Neil, Rupert, Eric. The P&G. Cassis. The P&G. Wine & Roses. The P&G. Pint of Sam, two glasses of champagne, four glasses of wine, pitcher of Sam, three pints of Sam, three glasses of wine. Wrote, typed, printed, edited; wrote, typed, printed, edited. ESTER: "I didn't find it titillating at all." AVA: "Titillating or scintillating?" MATTHEW: "That depends on whether you're interested in sin or tits." Paprika. Frontier Marshal. I Married A Witch. Watched football. Read Nietzsche. Fell in love.

Enchanted. I knew I was going to fall in love with this woman, which is why I've been putting off seeing the film. Yeah, the Denzel-in-distress ending is totally illogical, and if Patrick Dempsey was any stiffer he'd be a flying buttress, but Amy Adams, ladies and gentlemen. All I can say is, on the short list of comedies of innocence, this one is right up there with Nurse Betty and Clueless. And it's also a great New York City movie, with one of the best impossible Manhattan geography moments ever: did you know the Bowery is only about a block and a half from 116th and Riverside? Man, I want to live in Hollywood's version of New York. With Amy Adams.

Primary Update. Check out various reports from my friend Glynnis in New Hampshire.

Please return your trays chick to an upright position. Have a safe trip back to London, Ester.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Great Acting. Every five or six years, Daniel Day-Lewis comes out of whatever real-world life he's living to kick acting ass. And because he never lets you see himself, only the part he's playing, I have no idea who this guy is in real life, and how many other actors can you say that about?

There Will Be Echoes. DW Griffith. Greed. John Huston as Noah Cross in Chinatown. John Wayne in Red River (complete with adopted son). Captain Ahab, complete with limp. Ebenezer Scrooge without the ghosts. Charles Foster Kane without the sled (although I can so totally see Plainview's son starting up a newspaper--a muckraking daily that Upton Sinclair would have loved). Weirdest echo of all: Sweeney Todd. (And Johnny Depp.) It's instructive to see these two movies within the same week. You get a sense that the titans of industry in early 20th century America are only one step away from penny dreadful villains--that the desire for money is just as soul-corrupting as the desire for revenge. But if vengeance is the knife that turns on its owner, money is the drill the owner uses to drain away somebody else's future, to make his own secure.

There Will Be A WTF Ending. It's been a great year for those, hasn't it? No Country For Old Men? WTF. Gone Baby Gone? WTF. Michael Clayton's Queen Christina close-up? HFS. 3:10 to Yuma's final explosion of violence? JMAJ! Is it a sudden epidemic of reality? Is it everyone in Hollywood tapping into the same mood at the same time, like when six studios announce their own upcoming Che Guevera movie? Is it the no-good-way-out war in Iraq filtering its way into pictures that were filmed two years ago? I have no idea, but the two-part ending of There Will Be Blood goes to a place you could have predicted and another place you never could have predicted in a hundred years. Think Orson Welles shooting Joseph Cotten instead of rewriting his bad review. HFS indeed.

There Will Be Greatness. Is it a great movie? Yes. Does it feel like it was supposed to be a great movie? Yes indeed. Does that take away from it a little? I think so. There's a certain self-importance to Great Movies, a smugness which, like termites, will eat away at a film over time until in a generation it will cease to have any greatness at all. (I dare you to watch Crash in twenty years. Hell, I dare you to watch it in April.) There's a whiff of that in this film, and you can hear it in everyone's reply when you ask them about it. "You have to go see it," they'll say. And that can be the kiss of death. Only time will tell if will be watchable in the future the way, say, McCabe and Mrs. Miller is still watchable. In the meantime? You have to go see it.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Why reading comic books will always be a sign of immaturity

Those of you with real lives may not have heard that Peter (Spider-Man) Parker's 20-year-old marriage to Mary Jane Watson has been retroactively erased from current Marvel continuity. Why? Because stories about married guys are not as dramatic as stories about single guys who could be sleeping around.

You think I'm kidding? Check out this interview with Marvel Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada, and try to think of all the unspoken things which the phrase "soap opera" is code for:

The golden era of Spider-Man gave us things we had never seen in a comic before. We had a lovable loser as the hero, a character with some incredible failings, but an amazing amount of heart. “With great power there must also come great responsibility” was his motto, but at the very core of what made Spider-Man stories great and, more importantly, different, was the fantastic soap opera and the cast of characters and villains in Peter Parker’s life. Spider-Man stories revolutionized the comic book super hero because the stories were about Peter Parker; Spider-Man was secondary. This was a big shift from a world in which Superman and Batman were what was important. Clark and Bruce were just facades. And let me add, sometimes Spider-Man would lose against the bad guy and sometimes Spider-Man wouldn’t make the right decision. These were revolutionary ideas for a super hero comic at the time.

What really made Spidey unique wasn’t so much his powers or his costume, sure those were cool things, but what really made him unique was that it was about the guy inside the costume and the soap opera that was his life. Peter could have had a whole different set of powers and it still would have been a ground breaking comic because in the end, that’s not what made Spider-Man stories different. So, with every little bit of the trappings of his life that got chipped away, more and more of the soap opera dwindled.

When Peter Parker got married, it caused the character to be cut off from many of the social situations and settings that put him at conflict with his family, friends, and especially the girl he was dating. Suddenly, something as simple as the tension he had with Felicia Hardy was completely defused; if Peter ever gave in to temptation or even considered it, he would be, in the eyes of the fans, the lousiest guy in the world. It became harder to place Peter in situations where he could hang out with other single characters, without him seeming like the oldest person in the room, even if he wasn’t. And whatever nerdish sex appeal he possessed, we had to tread very carefully. He became the perpetual “designated driver.” Sure, Peter could hang around with other married folk -- I bet that would be exciting!

Let me try to put this as plainly as I can, and let’s be really honest here, let’s really look at marriage for a second. I'll get personal, for a moment. I have an incredible marriage and a fantastic kid, but there is no question that my life was much more story-worthy when I was single. Was I happier? Absolutely not. Was my life a better story from a drama sense? Ummmm, yeah. It had many more twists and turns and theater and was a bit of a mess. Now let me say, not everyone, but for most: When people get married, they tend to settle down -- life slows down and you gain different responsibilities, grown-up responsibilities, boring responsibilities. You go out to dinner less, see fewer movies, your social life is curtailed and revolves, as it should, around your significant other. In short, life hands you a mini van. While marriage makes for an okay story, there is less drama in a (healthy) marriage than in a single relationship. That’s one of the many reason we get married -- we want stability, we want comfort, we want kids, etc., etc. No one gets married because they want more drama in their life. What’s good for one’s life doesn’t always make for great stories when the heart of your character’s universe is drama. From a writer and artist’s point of view, the people who are creating the stories, it’s like giving Daredevil his eyesight back. It works for a short time and eventually erodes at the foundation of the character and what makes them unique. We all want Peter to catch a break and to settle down and have happiness in his life, but that isn’t really what we want. If that actually happened, people would stop caring about Spider-Man.

Bottom line, there are so many things that twentysomethings are doing with their lives that a married Peter can’t. He needs to be a single guy. Sure, he can have a girlfriend -- that adds something to his story -- but a married Peter just cuts off too many avenues for good soap opera. Could you have soap opera within a marriage? Sure. But after a while, there’s only so much tension you can bring into Peter and MJ’s marriage before you make him seem like a louse of a husband, or her, like a bickering wife. In contrast, you can only play them as a happy-go-lucky couple for so long -- that adds up to zero tension within the relationship and takes away a crucial element of Spider-Man stories: the soap opera.

Where to begin? No one gets married because they want more drama in their life. Okay, but that doesn't mean there is no drama or no soap opera in a marriage. For instance: guy with secret identity marries actress model and watches her career take off while his alter ego still gets slagged in the Daily Bugle. You don't think there's drama in that? Or how about this: guy with radioactive blood gets wife pregnant and there's a chance the kid will (fill in horrible blank here). That's not dramatic? Of course it's dramatic. It's just not adolescent drama. It's adult drama. Hence the title of this post.

Someone please tell me how "with great power comes great responsibility" is not dramatically enhanced by taking on the responsibility of a marriage. And the responsibility of fatherhood. If the soap opera is Peter Parker as a single guy, and marriage has been totally ruled out by editorial fiat, then your so-called "drama" is a succession of affairs that will never lead anywhere because Ye Editor has decreed that Spider-Man is not Spider-Man unless he's 20 and single. Which says to me The Powers That Be who are currently in charge of Marvel stopped relating to the real world when they were 20 and single. Hence the title of this post.

Look--I understand that these characters are marketable properties, I understand that you have to make them (how I hate this word) relatable to new audiences. And having six or seven decades of continuity means you have to figure out an accommodation between real-world time and comic book time. DC has chosen multiple universes and multiple reboots (the latest of which is next year with the laughable word "Final" in the title). Based on what's happening at Marvel, they're going with reboot (Spidey) as well as Next Generation (Bucky becoming Captain America. Maybe). There is of course a third choice neither of the Big Two has considered: anchoring certain characters in a strict real-world timeline, so that the JSA and Captain America would always be in the 40's and 50's, Dr Strange would be (so totally) Sixties, and Dazzler stuck in the 80's (duh). Do you want to see The Shadow anywhere but in the 30's? Not me. Certain characters only work as reflections of certain time periods; I say you should take that into consideration when creating/rebooting/adapting some of those properties.

But what about the tentpoles like Superman or Batman? Will we ever see Dick Grayson wear the cowl? Hell no-- and given Dan Didio's dislike of the character, we're lucky to be still seeing him alive. The bottom line here is that, in certain cases, what you think is going to be a symphony with movements will always end up being a broken record, and the words "an event which will change everything" will continue to be as accurate as "I did not sleep with that woman" or "I am not a crook."

What does this mean for the future of comics? Stagnation and irrelevance. (And let's not talk about what it means for all the female supporting characters in the upcoming Spider-Man soap opera, who have now been relegated to the status of those who sleep with Peter, those who don't sleep with Peter, and those who want to marry Peter but it'll never happen. Yeah, like that's gonna attract female readers.)

What does this mean for me? I'll be reading more novels, thank you. Novels about married people.

And what does this say about the current editorial direction of both Marvel and DC? It says they both have the ongoing opportunity to make their characters grow and change like real people and they consistently and constantly refuse to do it. Such a great opportunity, too--a chance to do something dramatically that no one has ever tried to do before. And it will never happen. Hence the title of this post.

Face it, tiger--you just lost your fan base.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Thought for the New Year

From Chapter III of On Liberty by John Stuart Mill:

In our times, from the highest class of society down to the lowest, every one lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship. Not only in what concerns others, but in what concerns only themselves, the individual or the family do not ask themselves—what do I prefer? or, what would suit my character and disposition? or, what would allow the best and highest in me to have fair play, and enable it to grow and thrive? They ask themselves, what is suitable to my position? what is usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances? or (worse still) what is usually done by persons of a station and circumstances superior to mine? I do not mean that they choose what is customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary. Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke: even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of; they like in crowds; they exercise choice only among things commonly done: peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes: until by dint of not following their own nature, they have no nature to follow: their human capacities are withered and starved: they become incapable of any strong wishes or native pleasures, and are generally without either opinions or feelings of home growth, or properly their own. Now is this, or is it not, the desirable condition of human nature?